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Pickle Me This

November 30, 2007

Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong

A dizzying force of a book, Jan Wong’s Beijing Confidential. I picked it up based on Heather Mallick’s recommendation and was not disappointed. Perhaps the least self-serving memoir ever, Beijing Confidential serves instead to tell the story of China during the last thirty-five years, as an attempt to right wrongs, and as a stunning picture of Beijing today. It didn’t so much make me want to go there, no, but I feel like I was there, which is something.

Throughout her career Wong has discussed her experiences as a third-generation Chinese Canadian studying in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. An ardent Maoist, she was eager to conform to the society she found there, to renounce her bourgeois origins. She describes her young self as “that very dangerous combination: fanatic, ignorant and adolescent.” The extent of her devotion she demonstrated by reporting on a classmate who dared to ask her how she could get to America. In the chaos of the time, such a counterrevolutionary act could have brought forth any range of punishments– even death. And it is this experience which Wong revisits during her trip to Beijing.

Her husband and sons travel with her. She writes, “I am not only planning to chronicle the future of this great city; I also need to come to terms with my own past. For this I need moral support. I need my family to reassure me that I’m not a horrible human being. Or that, if I am, they love me anyway.” Her edges are softened in this context; she displays vulnerability, dares to admit she has made mistakes in her past. This is brave, I think. She has come to Beijing to find her former classmate– a seemingly impossible task in a city of millions– and it is through this quest that we come to discover the city.

Of course for Jan Wong vulnerability only extends so far– she remains gutsy, unsentimental and pulls no punches. Her approach gives us a fascinating perspective on Beijing– what is it to search for your own past in a city so eager to bulldoze its own? For, as Wong finds, Beijing is a bustle of construction. Particularly with the 2008 Olympics ahead, she is aware that this trip maybe her last chance to see that traditional Beijing she remembers from her time there as a student. Already the city is exploding with condo towers, new roads, mammoth shopping malls and uber-development. In this place she once knew so well, she is perpetually disoriented, and so is her reader, though fittingly and not for any lack of control on Wong’s part.

Her story is so deftly woven with past and present, the personal and the political, with the local and the universal. Beijing Confidential is an education as much as a story– fact: Mao banned pets!, for example– but all propelled by her quest for reconciliation. The quest is resolved in storied fashion, involving chance, understanding and some putrid fruit. Such a marvelously constructed narrative, and a memoir with so much worth telling.

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